Point of View

The Little Things

Love in the Consulting Room

Magazine Issue
March/April 2014
Barbara Fredrickson

Catharses, unforgettable mo­ments of revelation, powerful expressions of deep emotion, breakthroughs, overwhelming joy—these kinds of supercharged experiences are often prized in the therapy world as landmarks on a client’s path to change. But in the increasingly influential world of positive psychology, researchers have begun to wonder whether all that fascination with drama and intensity is obscuring a mundane truth about what really matters in human relationships: the importance of the little things in daily life.

University of North Carolina psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson, in her books Positivity and Love 2.0, focuses on the small, casual, fleeting moments of positive connection in life as the key to resilience and health, rather than grand, intense, deeply passionate experiences. She argues that a notion of love defined by romance, profound intimacy, and marriage limits our understanding of the daily chain reactions of small moments of meeting with others that are essential to mental health. Rather than the capital-L version of love that we’ve been taught is basic to human happiness, the kind that really makes a difference for each of us may be better thought of as a renewable resource, like food and air, which the body takes in, depletes, and constantly needs to replenish.

This new, biologically informed understanding of love and positivity challenges our notions of what the goals of psychotherapy might be and encourages us to demystify our ideas about the role of intimacy, connection, and resilience in our lives. Fredrickson, who will be a keynote speaker at this spring’s Networker Symposium, took time to discuss how her research highlights the micro­moments of positivity that profoundly shape our lives, relationships, and the therapeutic alliance itself in ways that too often go overlooked.


RH: What led you to research positivity and love?

Fredrickson: I started studying emotions 25 years ago, when the majority of our field was focused on negative emotions like fear, anger, sadness, and depression. Even disgust had its own band of investigators. Very few people were studying positive emotions—or even mentioning them. But how could we explain why humans evolved to have emotions if we didn’t understand the positive ones? Some of the early theories proposed that while negative emotions are about survival, positive emotions were limited to a focus on reproduction, as if all of our positive emotions revolved around mating or mate selection—which they don’t.

RH: If that were the case, we’d have no joy beyond reproduction.

Fredrickson: Exactly. So I reasoned that positive emotions have to play a major role in our ability to survive and did some early tests on how positive emotions help people bounce back from adversity. What became more and more apparent was the role of positivity in expanding our awareness and broadening our thinking.

RH: Why was psychology so traditionally focused on the negative?

Fredrickson: From the beginning, I think, the field has tried to establish its relevance by treating diseases, illnesses, and disorders. When you focus on treating what’s wrong with people, you find that negative emotions that are ill-fitting to the context or that just last too long are often the source of a lot of mental health issues. But this overlooks how positive emotions can be an antidote to what harms us with negative emotions. I’ve devoted a good part of my research to understanding how the upward spirals of positive emotions counter the downward spirals of negative emotions that lead to many mental health issues. Positive emotions are crucial to helping people gain perspective and stepping back to see the bigger picture.

RH: As a therapist, I also try to help people see the big picture to feel better, but you’re focusing on how people who feel better tend to see the big picture. Is there a chicken-and-egg phenomenon going on here?

Fredrickson: Of course, it’s not really one or the other: it’s “both-and.” That bidirectionality of
reciprocal causality is required to create these upward spirals. So the more you have a positive emotion, the broader your outlook. The broader your outlook, the more positive emotion you feel, and it builds upon itself. It’s a cycle, and you can enter it in multiple ways.

RH: When some of my clients start to feel good, they begin to wonder when the hammer will drop. In these instances, you suggest finding another positive to keep the upward spiral going, right?

Fredrickson: It can be reassuring to learn that good and bad events in life aren’t equally distributed. Studies show that good events outnumber bad events by three or four or five to one. It’s just that the good events are typically subtler than the bad ones, or we let them be. Positive events are less pronounced, like “I don’t have any pain today,” or “everyone was so polite when I went to the post office.” They’re not necessarily out of the ordinary. There’s great opportunity to experience positive emotions if you choose to. That’s a place where people leave a lot of the opportunities for positivity on the table by not having an open enough attitude or mindset to absorb the benefits.

RH: That sounds like mindfulness. You’re bringing more awareness to the positive.

Fredrickson: Exactly. It’s important to know that our bodies are designed to notice negativity, because that allows us to avoid danger and stay alive. That’s why the negative is so much more attention grabbing, but we can choose to align our attention with the benefits in life, the good fortunes.

RH: In your book Positivity, you suggest a three-to-one ratio of positive to negative thoughts is key for psychological and occupational flourishing. Your research showed that business teams who had three or more positive thoughts and comments to every negative one tended to achieve at a higher level.

Fredrickson: Other people have found ratios of good and bad events in people’s lives, but I tracked the ratios of the positive to negative emotions in life. They tend to map on to one another. There’s controversy currently about some of the mathematical modeling around the tipping-point ratio of positive to negative emotions, but that doesn’t actually change what the data say.

RH: I saw that your research was the target of a critical American Psychologist article. What was their main complaint?

Fredrickson: Mostly it’s a quibble about the mathematical model. I actually agree with the critiques that say the mathematical model that led to the 3-to-1 tipping-point ratio for positive emotions is no longer to be relied on. What’s been unfortunately distorted by some of the accounts, even in the American Psychological Association Monitor, is that it’s not the ratio itself that’s been debunked: it’s the mathematical model that points to a particular tipping point. The data still stand. I wrote a response to the critiques that basically says don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

RH: Ironically, the controversy seems so negative!

Fredrickson: One thing was confirmed: negativity bias is real! The more people write negative extreme things, the more the media loves it. It seems it’s a part of human nature.

RH: How do you cope with this negative press?

Fredrickson: The good data on the effects of positivity keep rolling in and getting better and better, so I feel like that was a blip of 2013. Right now, I’m super excited about data that we just collected about how learning to self-generate positive emotions changes people at a cellular level and leads to changes in gene expression in the immune system in ways that contribute to health. We’ve been able to document effects of positive emotions at deeper and deeper levels. Although there are bound to be continuing critiques of the work as it gets more interesting, I put my faith in the data. We work as rigorously as possible. And unlike blogs, it’s peer reviewed.

RH: The research you describe in Love 2.0 goes against our cultural myth that love must include a magical, mystical meeting of souls. Instead, you suggest that while romantic love is a positive experience, it’s just one of many positive experiences and experiences of daily connection with others that determine our mental health.

Fredrickson: Right. I guess I put it on a continuum. I think there still exists a head-over-heels, meet-your-soulmate phenomenon, but that’s not the only part of love. The lesson from positive psychology is that, much as we can get preoccupied with the dramatic and the unusual, positive emotions matter because they’re frequent and mild. The really intense and rare ones don’t have the lasting effects on your life that the recurring everyday mild ones do. It’s the latter ones that contribute the most to health and wellbeing.

RH: If that message gets out, a lot of romance writers are going to lose their jobs!

Fredrickson: In the daylight, we don’t see the stars because the sun is shining so bright. In the same way, a steamy falling-in-love episode in life is so captivating and intoxicating that we don’t see these milder sources of positivity chugging along and keeping our hearts healthy.

RH: So what are the implications of your research for how psychotherapists establish their connection with their clients?

Fredrickson: My research emphasizes micromoments within that therapeutic relationship—micromoments of positivity resonance, biobehavioral synchrony, when your heart and brain rhythms are in sync. Those are powerful moments within the relationship as a whole, but they’re not often verbalized or afforded the importance they have. Regularly sharing laughter
in a session can help establish a quality of connection and trust as much as deep moments of exploration or a single-session experience of very intense emotion or insight.

RH: So it’s not just the “ah ha!” breakthrough moments that Hollywood loves to depict, but these not-so-exciting yet stable moments of connection that bring healing.

Fredrickson: Little by little, these micromoments of connection and positive emotions reshape who we are from the inside out and increasingly motivate us toward health.


Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., ABPP is a Pasadena, California-based psychologist, musician, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” Learn more at ryanhowes.net.